Africa will rise after Covid-19, but it must rethink its future
- It is imperative that we strengthen devolved units and start under them a more self-reliant rural economy with an integrated and reliable food production and storage system.
- In recent weeks, we have seen the Kenya Association of Manufacturers’ automotive sector tapping into homegrown talent and expertise to develop ventilators.
Throughout history, catastrophes like the current Covid-19 have served as springboards for invention, innovation and policy shifts upon which phoenix industries rise like new lash vegetation after devastating forest fires and new economic models emerge.
Devastating, as Covid-19 will be to Africa, the continent will survive, recover and rise again. But it is what we do with the rise that will make the difference to the next generation.
Post Covid-19, we in Africa will have to thoroughly review our health, agriculture, manufacturing, education and social safety net policies, according to the lessons learnt. Otherwise, the next crises of similar dimensions will find us exactly where we are today.
I expect Africa to embark on pragmatic and not idealistic solutions to her problems post Covid-19.
It may involve revisiting pragmatic solutions that worked for us but which we abandoned just to be seen to be marching in tandem with the developed world.
We will need a continental response to those lessons, instead of acting as individual countries. This need not be difficult in light of the current agreement to act as a continent, which gave birth to the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).
Challenges that we must urgently come to terms with are emerging. A key one is the structure and limits of our development models.
Various regimes across Africa, including in Kenya, have tried to rework our economic models but got derailed by entrenched, conservative and elite interests.
Take the case of food, a critical plank in the battle to contain Covid-19. The disease has laid bare how horribly we have handled agriculture.
This is not just commercial agriculture like tea, coffee, sugar and wheat sectors but also subsistence agriculture. This situation is even worse in oil producing countries like Nigeria.
There is no question that food should never be an issue in Africa. We have immense potential to produce food for consumption and export because we own most of the world’s arable land and over half of our population is employed in this sector.
Yet Africa still can’t feed its people. Across many, if not all African countries, Kenya included, we have frustrated agriculture by the economics of “tenderpreneurship” leading to unnecessary importation of items like sugar, maize, wheat and rice and frustrating farmers’ access to inputs. We have equally ignored hardy traditional crops.
Leaders are currently delicately balancing between locking down their countries, which has shown positive results against the spread of Covid-19, and keeping them open.
A key reason for this balancing is the fear that without a way of ensuring people have access to food, lockdown will lead to starvation and even upheavals.
Yet Africans could easily feed themselves even under a lockdown. I grew up in a setting where food security was almost always guaranteed.
Most homes had food supplies ranging from chickens and eggs, dried and preserved fish and even meat, cassava, millet, beans, name it.
Nearly every homestead had a vegetable farm. Everything could be rounded up together just before mealtime.
It is imperative that we strengthen devolved units and start under them a more self-reliant rural economy with an integrated and reliable food production and storage system, which is not necessarily subsistence and which builds on traditional knowledge.
In urban areas, it is even more urgent that the post Covid-19 recovery programme includes restructuring our living spaces.
The distribution of food in slums would not be fiascos were there to be streets, houses with street numbers and residents on known welfare programmes.
Covid-19 has badly exposed our deficient healthcare infrastructure, indicating that we have only concentrated on prevention and cure.
How to ensure everyone is able to pay for healthcare, especially in a situation where one mismanaged infection can bring down an entire nation, is a matter Africa must confront with urgency.
With Covid-19, one person left to own devices is too much for everyone. In Kenya, we attempted Universal Health Care under the NARC and the grand coalition governments. Vested interests and “tenderpreneurs” however ganged against it.
In the end, we only managed to open up the National Hospital Insurance Fund to both out patient and inpatient, and broaden the width, not depth, of cover.
Even this is now being threatened by the so-called “regulator” conspiring with private insurers to stop NHIF from continuing with its comprehensive cover.
Further, healthcare is too dominated by donors in terms of funding and agenda setting, yet Kenya boasts of a very highly trained health workforce.
When donors are overwhelmed in their own countries as is the case now, we are left badly exposed.
More important is research, innovation and use of technology in healthcare. Whether the ventilator they came up with passes the test or not, Kenyatta University students have challenged us that with greater encouragement from the government and private sector, innovation for healthcare can be done here, by us.
So we have to ask ourselves, what have we done with the Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri) and its equivalents across Africa?
We have to question the continued dominance of US CDC over Kemri and its equivalents in Africa and seek ways to make these institutions independent and more attuned to Africa’s needs. Collaboration is fine, but dominance is wrong and stifling.
Biotechnology, genetic engineering and biomedical engineering are glaringly absent in the scene of medical sciences in Africa.
Our hope in Kenya is the new Kenyatta University Medical School, which was originally mooted between 2008-2013 but got shot down by functionaries who thought what Kenya needed were more health centres and dispensaries.
In recent weeks, we have seen the Kenya Association of Manufacturers’ automotive sector tapping into homegrown talent and expertise to develop ventilators that can be produced at short notice.
This must not be a one-off development that dies with victory over Covid-19. Africa is the richest continent on earth with regard to raw materials.
The paradox is that it is also the poorest in terms of the living conditions of its people. This situation can, and must be changed through value addition.
Instead of exporting iron ore, copper ore, bauxite, we must export steel products, copper cables, bars, sheets and aluminium.
Even gold, diamonds and crude oil should never leave Africa as raw materials for industries in other continents.
The post Covid-19 era creates opportunities for job creation in manufacturing, service sector including ICT, food production and infrastructure development than ever before for Africa.
Strengthening our railway systems is a good place to start. Africa has a historic opportunity, born out of a historic tragedy, to put an end to our tradition of importing everything and producing nothing.
This is the time for us to rethink our futures.
Mr Odinga is the African Union High Representative for Infrastructure Development.